Insurrection

This is an outstanding and thought-provoking piece of work by the New York Times. It deserves to be circulated. Spread it around.

After watching this, I was left uncertain about my reaction to it and what I might want to say about it. So I’ll limit myself to a tangential observation. I’m not a pacifist so I hope I’m not sounding sanctimonious about this, but unless you have some ideological commitment to violent revolution, this is headed in the wrong direction. Whatever else this video is, it is a warning about how violence in politics feeds on itself.

A Trumpster Full

Photo by Roman.

Of course, the message really is ambiguous. If you happen to like or approve or otherwise support Donald Trump, you can take this as a draining the swamp metaphor, rehabbing America, making it like new if not great. On the other hand, I see an American flag over-filled with garbage, a disrespect made invisible by social superiority.

Social superiority? I mean this in a visceral, primate pecking-order sort of way, though it does translate into more abstract and generalized phenomenon, such as class, race, gender, etc. etc. etc. But for now, think of two baboons doing a screaming dance to determine which of them is indeed the boss. If you take that as the root, the 21st Century practice of insulting the opposition rather than persuading them becomes a lot more understandable… at least to me.

Disrespect? Well, legislation is partly an expression of that “screaming dance” and there is in the United States a Flag Code as to how one is supposed to treat or not treat the U.S. Flag, most relevantly:

“The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

“The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.”

There’s actually a lot more to it. If you want to get out into the weeds, you can find it all HERE.

To be fair, almost no one outside of government organizations and political professionals has been paying much attention to the Flag Code… not even conservative America… except when it relates to something they disapprove of.

Well, that’s just too bad.

On the other hand, if you’re going to the trouble of flying the U.S. flag, is it too much to ask that it be done with some attention to the Flag Code? Or is your patriotism not much different than your identification with the local sports team?

I guess so.

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.


Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

Democratizing the Economy

a presentation by Olof Palme.

The recording features a presentation at the December, 1980, Eurosocialism and America Conference by Olof Palme (1927 — 1986). At the time, Palme was a leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. He was then between two of his stints (1969-1976 and 1982-1986) as Prime Minister of Sweden. At the time, the Swedish Social Democrats were attempting to implement the “Meidner Plan” which would have euthanized the rentier class essentially by buying it out over time.

The Eurosocialism and America Conference was organized by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC)’s 501c3 arm, the Institute for Democratic Socialism. A few years later, DSOC merged with the New American Movement to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The conference was held at a strategic moment, after the pivotal November, 1980, election but before the January change in government. At least a few of Palme’s remarks are directed specifically at this. The conference was a Beltway wonder for a few weeks in that December but was ultimately buried by the flood basalts of the erupting Reagan Revolution.

Olof Palme is introduced by Chicago’s Carl Shier. Shier was an International Representative with the United Auto Workers Region 4 and a leader in the DSOC. While it is true that Olof Palme had many connections with the United Auto Workers, it is also true that a truly surprising number of foreign lefty politicians and union leaders knew Carl Shier, Palme among them.

[Recording time: 56:48]

This particular recording was among the several dozen tapes that Frank Llewellyn from the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office had sent to me sometime after the turn of the century. Allowing for duplications and individual tapes expiring from old age, I guessimated those tapes amounted to at least a week’s worth of full time work. I listened to a few of them and did an inventory, but that’s where I left it.

They remained in my closet for well over a decade. Now, voilà.

“Portland’s Burning Heart”

Portland’s Burning Heart uses a combination of iPhone footage, on-the-ground photography and haunting voice over to tell the story of Portland’s ongoing street protests from the perspective of a woman who knows them well: Emmy-winning photojournalist Beth Nakamura of The Oregonian. Beth is the burning heart at the center of the film, and over the course of its 13 minutes we watch as she evolves from local reporter to teargas-dodging, stab-vest-wearing conflict journalist.

“Commissioned by the Dutch public network HUMAN in anticipation of the 2020 US elections, the film is a collaboration between Nakamura and the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award-winning filmmaking team Jongsma + O’Neill.”

I’ve been wondering if sending Federal “law enforcement” to Portland was an attempt, in a general sort of way, for Trump (or perhaps his minions) to emulate Ronald Reagan and Peoples Park. Just asking for a friend…

Gold Water

Photo by Roman.

Yes, this was actually a thing back in 1964, a soft drink named for the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater. It was the brainstorm of some Georgia lawyer. It was not an official campaign product, and I recall reading that Senator Goldwater was not happy about it but only commented publicly that he hoped the name didn’t hurt their business prospects. News reports from the day, including the New York Times, variously described the flavor as “lemon lime” or “ginger-ale” or “citrus” when in fact it had no taste whatsoever. The can contents show that it was no more than food coloring and carbonated water… much like what passes for U.S. conservatism for most of the past 100 years.

dsc03944
Gold Water: the right drink for the conservative taste. Contents and distribution. Photo by Roman.

Note that the can is a steel “tin” can, and it shows its age with a bit of rust. If you should acquire one of these, unopened, in pristine condition, you might reasonably pay as much as $40 for it. Repurposed as a pencil holder, maybe $10. My parents paid less than 10¢ per can for a case of the stuff… immediately after the 1964 election. At that price, they were still ripped off.

And that, my friend, is a fable for our times.

The Crisis in Economic Theory

1980-3
Michael Harrington (podium) at the 1980 Thomas – Debs Dinner in Chicago. Seated to his right is that year’s honoree, Rosemary Ruether. Seated to his left are Rev. Jim Gorman and Crystal Lee Sutton. Photo by Syd Harris.

This is another of the cassette tapes from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) national office. While I found the content interesting, it also had some mild historical interest, being a presentation by Michael Harrington to a gathering of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) [update] on June 16 of 1980. I’d guess it was the DSOC Youth Section’s annual summer conference. DSOC was one of the predecessors to DSA, the other being the New American Movement.

The quality of the recording is adequate, especially as it may have been done from the audience. It is missing the first minute of the program, and there is another more irritating section of really dead air about two-thirds in. I don’t know who the person recording this was and any specific venue would be but a guess.

I found the presentation interesting in two ways. One is that apparently Keynesian economic policy has not always worked as advertised. Harrington nominates business cycles as a possible explanation. Maybe, though I don’t find that idea particularly exciting. An institutional or even academic memory of this misfire of Keynesianism of a sort, however, is of interest. IMHO. The other thing is: what a topic to present to an organizational meeting of a political group. That leaves a bit, good and bad, to unpack.

(Length — 56:41)

“Toyota Man”

When I was watching this short video from Neon Indian, I realized that I had seen it before. And this time I thought it was worth sharing. There’s no memory of why I had decided not to post it before. Maybe because it’s a music video.

In any case, what’s not to like? See if you can spot all the pop references. I only know a few of them. Many others are sufficiently caricatured that they are obviously references but the originals are beyond my ken.